Alastair Cook waged a lone battle in the company of Matt Prior to take the first Test into the final day, and though India took the final honours without much ado, several intriguing aspects came forth from the match. Did Cook's effort indicate that the Englishmen saw too many non-existent devils in the pitch, or did the Indian spinners fail to get their act together? An affirmative answer to both would be deemed too critical, while a negative one would be categorised as extremely charitable.
However, if the efforts of Cook and the spinners are viewed in proper perspective, one would appreciate the master class from Cook on the art of batting on a dry turning track as much as one would comprehend the degree of craft required for a spinner to bowl even on a helpful pitch. Cook may have been guilty of reading the pitch incorrectly, which in turn resulted in him pinning his faith on the fast bowlers a shade too much, but his judgment of line and length backed by flawless shot selection was close to perfection.
Cook played with positive intent, and employed the right technique in handling R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in the second innings. He attacked with confidence to disconcert the spin duo, and good use of the feet forced Ashwin and Ojha to pitch short frequently, allowing Cook to use the depth of the crease to plunder runs.
He played Ashwin for the turn when in doubt, as one should on a turner when the ball spins away from the bat. A straighter delivery is not likely to cause too many issues. Moreover, bowling a straighter one on a turner is easier said than done, which meant that Ashwin had to disguise his carom ball exceptionally well. In his bid to get the ball to turn and jump more, Ashwin did exactly the wrong thing by getting his alignment way past side on - his front leg going way too far across the right leg - which resulted in him finishing his follow through in the direction of cover.
He needs to get his front leg far straighter in order to get the other bowling elements like release of the ball, transfer of weight and follow through right. That will produce turn, nip and bounce. Besides, a proper alignment will guarantee a consistent line as well. Graeme Swann does get his front leg across too but his run up to the wicket is much quicker, which offsets his other negatives to a certain extent.
Ashwin will need to realise that wickets cannot be had in a hurry in every innings despite his impressive strike rate in home Tests. The presence of Harbhajan Singh in the squad will perhaps create a wee bit of extra zeal as well. As the lead spinner, Ashwin needs to ensure that he bowls to bowl well and not get too keyed up about bowling for wickets, as the wily former great Erapalli Prasanna is fond of saying.
Ashwin did that in the first innings, which brought him rewards, but yielding to the temptation to surpass himself can prove to be detrimental. The need to stick to the basics is even more critical on a turner, because the deviation from the surface provides batsmen the opportunity to create angles and score runs. As such, the margin of error for spinners is less on turners, contrary to popular assumption that they can get away with some loose stuff.
Cook and Prior have shown the way for England, and it remains to be seen if the other batsmen can emulate them in the upcoming Tests. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see the approach of the Indian spinners as well.